St. Bede the Venerable and the Interesting History of the Church in England

John Kubasak

St. Bede the Venerable and the Interesting History of the Church in England

We know only sparse details about St. Bede’s life. He included a few biographical notes at the end of his famous Ecclesiastical History of England. He was a monk and priest at the monastery of Sts. Peter and Paul at Wearmouth and Jarrow. As a 7-year-old boy, he came under the educational tutelage of the abbots at the monastery. He had a bent toward the academic: “I always took delight in learning, or teaching, or writing” (pg. 387). After becoming a priest, he set to work “to compile out of the works of the venerable Fathers, the following brief notes on the Holy Scriptures.” He also added notes of his own. In all, St. Bede wrote 30 biblical commentaries and also wrote on natural history, science, poetry, and history. His reputation contained more than scholarly pursuits: he had a reputation for holiness well before he even passed away. 

When historical works were not so common, St. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History is a significant source of history. We owe most of our knowledge of some saints, like St. Aidan of Lindisfarne, to that work.  

St. Bede is buried in Durham Cathedral in northeast England along with one of his contemporaries, bishop and incorruptible St. Cuthbert.  


Brief History of the Church in England

Catholic historian Christopher Dawson noted that the English Reformation took on a far different character than what happened in continental Europe, “It was not the result of a popular social and religious revolution which destroyed an imperial State Church…it was the royal power that was supreme, and it was the State rather than the Church that decided which was to be the religion of its subjects” (The Dividing of Christendom, pg. 113). It later moved into doctrinal questions, but it did not begin with them as in other places like Germany.  

King Henry VIII officially broke communion with the Roman Catholic Church by 1535, after moving incrementally for three years. Through acts of Parliament, Henry gained the submission of the clergy, named himself the supreme head of the Church of England, and made it treason to assert otherwise. The Catholic Church in England became the Church of England, or the Anglican Church. What little resistance remained now became easy to dispense with; a matter of religion and theology was ripped from its natural sphere and became a legal, political matter. St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher were executed for treason in 1535. Henry VIII destroyed shrines, like Our Lady of Walsingham and that of St. Thomas Becket; he confiscated all monastery lands and gave them to the nobility. Not only did he purchase the loyalty of the nobility, but he hacked away the roots of the spiritual support of the country.        

For the remainder of the 16th century, England vacillated between the two poles of Catholicism and Protestantism. Henry kept to all of his previously Roman Catholic practices, minus involvement with the pope. Anne Boleyn and her Protestant influencers ensured the appointment of Protestant-leaning bishops. Henry’s only surviving legitimate son, King Edward VI, had Protestant regents and continued moving the country’s religion in that direction. His brief 6-year reign as king (dying at the age of 15) and Lady Jane Grey’s 9 day “reign” were followed by a return to Catholicism. Henry VIII’s daughter from his first marriage, Mary, became queen. She attempted to gently move the county back toward Catholicism. Poor health brought about an early death; the efforts during her five-year reign were quickly erased by her Protestant half-sister, Elizabeth I (daughter of Henry and Anne Boleyn) and her 44-year reign.

Queen Elizabeth ushered in a dark time for Catholicism in England. Catholics were persecuted; the sacraments were outlawed; priests were guilty of treason for just setting foot on English soil. This became the age of martyrs and heroes: St. Anne Line, St. John Southworth, St. Edmund Campion, St. Nicholas Owen, and the other 40 martyrs of England and Wales. 


The Aftermath

Anti-Catholic sentiment reigned even though persecution ebbed and flowed. Those of wealth or from the aristocracy could remain Catholic by paying fines. Some monarchs, like King Charles I, held to a more tolerant position. Other rulers, like Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell, showed nothing but contempt toward Catholics. Catholics were forbidden from holding a seat in Parliament. Bishoprics disappeared. All the historic churches that had held centuries upon centuries of Masses, baptisms, and weddings were stripped away from English Catholics within a generation.  

Hope began to flicker again in 1778 with the Catholic Relief Act and was more fully realized with the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829. Catholics had their rights to own and inherit land restored, on the condition of swearing an oath of loyalty to the monarch. Catholic schools opened again and new church buildings were constructed. This is why many travelers to England will find Catholic churches to have been built around the turn of the 19th century.  


The Oxford Movement and Irish Immigration 

A curious thing happened within the Church of England in the 1830s. As the Anglican Church drifted more and more Protestant, a group of Oxford students led a movement to bring the Anglican Church back to Romish roots. This did have an effect on the Church of England, but it also brought many converts into the Catholic Church. St. John Henry Newman was one of the foremost members of the movement.  His conversion into the Catholic Church occasioned a great controversy to the point where his efforts in the Oxford Movement were called a fraud. Public discourse along those lines led Newman to defend himself in his Apologia Pro Vita Sua. It is an amazing spiritual autobiography that gives the reader an inside look of the Oxford Movement and the ecclesiastical nuances of the 1800s.   

The Irish Famine of the 1840s and 1850s saw the Irish migrating to England and Scotland in addition to America. The Catholic population thus grew. Finally in 1850, the Vatican reestablished the episcopacy in England after nearly 300 years. 


Valid Orders and Ecumenism

Despite the break with Rome, 16th century English bishops still had valid, apostolic orders. In practice, any converts from Anglicanism to Catholicism had to have all of their sacraments were redone—John Henry Newman, an accomplished scholar for decades, had to enter the seminary. Still, after three centuries of politics and polemics, the question was raised to Pope Leo XIII in 1896: were Anglican orders valid? The Holy Father convened a commission to study the question.  His conclusion after reading briefs and hearing debates was a resounding ‘no’ in the papal bull Apostolicae Curae.  

Since then, any ecumenical efforts in a Catholic/Anglican dialogue have become increasingly complicated. The Anglican Communion was the first Christian ecclesial community to allow contraception in 1930. They subsequently departed from traditional Christian teaching on sexual morality, marriage, and an all-male priesthood and episcopate. While the pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury (the ceremonial head of the worldwide Anglican communion) can exchange pleasantries and maintain diplomatic relations, any formal reunification is impossible with that list of obstacles.  


Personal Ordinariates

Pope Benedict XVI took a huge step to bring back the doctrinally orthodox Anglicans back into the fold of the universal Church. In 2009, he issued the papal bull Anglicanorum Coetibus to make a way for Anglicans to come in union with the Catholic Church while keeping their unique liturgical worship. In England, the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham was created; about 2,000 Anglican clergy and laity joined in 2011. Across the pond, the Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter was founded in 2012 to cover North America. The Ordinariate of Our Lady of the Southern Cross was founded in the same year to serve Australia.  

A few years later in 2015, Pope Francis ordained the first American ordinariate bishop, Steven Lopes. Previously, a monsignor had been the head of the Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter. With a bishop, the ordinariate has a solid standing. Having a bishop means that the ordinariate can ordain priests and ensure the spiritual care of the flock for years to come. The Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham will soon have a bishop as well.  


England has been called “Our Lady’s Dowry” for over a thousand years. That is, the country is a gift to Our Blessed Mother. The country has had a fascinating history, from St. Bede to Queen Mary, from St. Anne Line to St. John Henry Newman. What future saints and heroes await in England?